Classical music fans received bad news only days ago when the Ravinia Festival announced on May 1 that it was cancelling its entire 2020 season. Ravinia is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, so all those concerts will be lost along with the other concerts at the leafy, north suburban venue, including chamber music and solo recitals, as well as Ravinia’s artists and groups representing a full range of musical genres and styles.
But you can still hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and in the comfort of your own home. You need only a CD player. CSO Resound is the orchestra’s own label, and they have many live recordings available for purchase. This week I’ll have a look at two of these recordings, both featuring music by Dmitri Shostakovich.
CSO Resound has a marvelous disc of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar” featuring the CSO, the Chicago Symphony Chorus, bass soloist Alexey Tikhomirov, all conducted by Riccardo Muti.
“Babi Yar” is a setting of the poem by the same name by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a scorching account of the 34,000 deaths of Jews by the Nazis in the Ukrainian ravine known as Babi Yar. Shostakovich was drawn to the poem and completed his symphonic setting in 1962.
Fifty years ago Riccardo Muti conducted the first performance in western Europe of the symphony. This recent CSO recording displays Muti’s profound appreciation and understanding of the work.
The symphony is in five movements, the first has the Babi Yar text, and the following four movements are settings of four other poems by Yevtushenko, one being written specifically for the symphony at the request of Shostakovich.
The recording is compelling and Muti marshals his forces magnificently. The symphony bristles with energy, even in its quietest moments. Muti anchors the performance with somber and solemn reverence for the tragedy it memorializes.
Tikhomirov is terrific. He is a bass with pleasing and easy high notes, powerful projection, and the ability to shape his phrases with purpose and beauty.
The men of the Chicago Symphony Chorus are equally admirable, adding gravitas to the performance. Whether singing pianissimo or fortissimo, the chorus has spirit and is a vital element in propelling the story forward.
The disc runs 1:08:30 and was recorded live in Orchestra Hall on Sep. 21, 2018. Duane Wolfe prepared the chorus. Phillip Huscher wrote the fine program notes, which conclude with a quotation from the poet Yevtushenko, which I’ll quote as well, as it has added meaning during a time of pandemic: “Over people like Shostakovich death has no power. His music will sound as long as humankind exists. Great art succeeds where medicine fails — victory over death. When I wrote “Babi Yar,” there was no monument there. Now there is a monument …”
Also on CSO Resound is a disc with the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti by Shostakovich and “Kol Nidre” by Arnold Schoenberg featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Chorus, bass soloist Ildar Abdrazakov all conducted by Riccardo Muti.
The Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti is a song cycle, setting to music 11 Michelangelo poems which were first translated into Russian. Shostakovich wrote the cycle originally for bass and piano and only later created the version for bass and orchestra, which is on this recording. The work was premiered in 1974, a year before the 500th anniversary of the birth of Michelangelo.
The poetry has a wide arc, and deals with various themes, including artistry, truth, and destiny.
Muti is again a sensitive and exciting leader, with the Shostakovich songs each having their own bloom and purpose. Muti has again found a fantastic bass to collaborate with in Abdrazakov, who offers glorious softness as well as forceful fortes. He spins out text with the clarity of speaker as well as the magic of a singing storyteller. This is not Abdrazakov’s only recording of this work, he also was the featured soloist on a recording of the work by the BBC Philharmonic. Here in Chicago, Muti surrounds Abdrazakov with orchestral sound that supports and elevates the singing, and the bass rewards him by an inspired performance, bursting with passion, anger, meditation, and yearning.
Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre features Alberto Mizrahi as the narrator. I attended this concert eight years ago, and in my review in these pages I wrote, “Alberto Mizrahi, the cantor at Chicago's Anshe Emet Synagogue, was a fantastic narrator, expertly navigating the text, sometimes softly caressing it, other times boldly intoning it, always with an eye to expressing the profound nature of repentance.”
I stand by that, and would add that his performance becomes more irresistible on repeated hearings. Mizrahi has the skills of an actor or reporter in making the text vivid. He has the skills of a musician, with a clear connection not only to the mood of the music, but its rhythms and dynamics. And he has the skills of a leader, giving the text a moral force.
Muti has a deft hand here, drawing out the spiritual power of this music written for Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. While this is an example of Schoenberg writing tonal music, it still has the kind of bite you expect from a composer who helped to found a revolution in composition.
The disc is 56:50 in length, chorus director Duane Wolfe prepared the chorus, and the original performances were in March 2012 (Schoenberg) and June 2012 (Shostakovich).
Visit cso.org for more information on CSO Resound.